Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer

Acclaimed writer Emily Bernard ’89 GRD ’98 did not know that she was writing a book when she penned the first words of “Black is the Body,” an anthology of twelve deeply personal essays that she read from at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on Wednesday. 

Through her work, Bernard is credited with having introduced a new way of talking about race and Blackness.

At Wednesday’s talk, Bernard began by acknowledging the mentors, teachers, friends and family who have taken a “poetic” approach to educating her in scholarship and life, followed by a short reading of her essay “Motherland,” which she dedicated to her daughters.

The piece delves into her and her husband’s travel to Ethiopia to meet their twin daughters for the first time, as well as the emotional and bodily experiences associated with becoming a mother. In an interview with the News, she said that as a writer, her perspective and work are constantly evolving elements, and she is able to reflect and grow through writing.

“I’ve learned that life is about relationships,” Bernard said. “And so the book is about trying to keep it small and say we’re all part of this large story, big story, but celebrating at the same time that it is remarkable and it’s natural… It’s a balancing act.”

Bernard’s approach to language is “economizing,” she said. She loves to challenge established ideas and expectations while prioritizing concision so her words remain accessible to all. Essays and books are very different mediums, she admitted, but a powerful story at its core is one that “stands up” for — without taking the spotlight away from — other people’s stories. 

This dynamic made an impression on Suraj Singareddy ’25, an attendee at the talk and a staffer for the News. 

I think something that Bernard does beautifully is bridge the personal and the historical … incorporat[ing] bits of history to contextualize moments from her personal life … [and] at the same time [not] allow[ing] history to define her,” he wrote to the News, noting that the public conversation with Bernard felt no different than one with a close friend. “She celebrates the mundane and personal. It’s a really interesting way of approaching history (especially the history of race and identity).”

Anne Fadiman, the Francis Writer in Residence and a professor in the English department, who helped host the event, felt “blown away” by Bernard’s ability to write about “love and vomit” in the same paragraph of “Motherland,” and by her use of the human body as a lens for frailty, intimacy and emotion.

Outside of parenthood, Bernard’s work is also focused on education and youth empowerment. Among the more well-known pieces in her collection, “Teaching the N-Word” was named one of 2017’s Best American Essays and circulated in classrooms all over the country. The essay drew inspiration from her experiences teaching English at the University of Vermont, a predominantly white New England institution. 

In light of Ron DeSantis ’01’s recent criticism of Advanced Placement African American Studies, and the College Board’s subsequent response to strip back critical race theory curriculum in the course, she said that there was value in “thanking him” because she has “never seen evil more plainly.” 

She said she views DeSantis’s lack of hesitation and filter as a creative challenge to continue writing, speaking out, shaping youth leaders and presenting ideas to those in power. Despite his ongoing push to limit Black history education in America, Bernard affirmed that she, and other like-minded writers, are only going to “produce more changes,” finding comfort in the fact that they have hit on something important if others are challenging them. 

“Blackness is an art, not a science. It is a paradox: intangible and visceral; a situation and a story,” Bernard writes in “Black is The Body.” “It is the thread that connects these essays, but its significance as an experience emerges randomly, unpredictably … Race is the story of my life, and therefore black is the body of this book.”

The talk was made possible through the Yale English Department’s Initiative on Literature and Racial Justice. 

Tristan Hernandez covers student policy and affairs for the News. He is also a copy editor and previously reported on student life. Originally from Austin, Texas, he is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in political science.
Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!